The Blessing and Curse of Subjectivity

Again I find myself apologizing for a rather extended absence from the blogosphere; I just completed another intense 10-day residency in University of Tampa’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program. During those days, I was privileged to sit in workshops with fellow writers and hear their opinions and suggestions regarding my work. Some, as you might imagine, were quite good. They made my work more concise, clearer, and cleaner. Other suggestions were less fruitful, demonstrating only that the reader was unfamiliar with certain literary tools/devices, or that they simply had divergent poetic sensibilities from my own.

For poets, both the pleasure and the problem come from the realm of subjectivity. Over the last three semesters for instance, I’ve had three different writing mentors. All three are well-known and celebrated contemporary poets with extensive publication histories, award-winning books, and other laurels. Each one has brought a new and valuable gift to the table, and each one has had his or her own personal preferences about what poetry should look like, sound like, feel like, and be. Mentor One had different “rules” than Mentor Two, and Mentor Three has already discarded some of Mentor Two’s hard-and-fast standards. Some like language poetry, others despise it, favoring neo-modernism instead. The list goes on and on.

These vast variations among “experts” have led me to one solid conclusion: Poetry is entirely subjective. This is not a new truth. In fact, it’s one that we were advised about from the very get-go of this MFA program. But the reality of subjectivity is just now beginning to truly evidence itself for me personally. What one editor loves, another hates, and what one professor praises, another scorns. The same could be said of my fellow students in the program — because poetry doesn’t really play by any concrete rules, one workshop participant can be just as right as another in saying yea or nay to different constructions, images, parallels, or rhymes. Some reasons for critiques have a stronger tradition than others, but nobody gets excluded from having his or her say-so.

As a right-brained creative, I like the abstract notion that poetry can be perceived and valued in so many different ways. However, as a rule-follower and a structure-lover, I find myself desiring certain definitive, concrete absolutes within poetry simultaneously. It’s a perilous and paradoxical predicament, and not unlike those faced by certain other professions — what one doctor sees as incredible treatment, another calls quack medicine. What one lawyer claims is an excellent defense, another decries as logical fallacy. Those of us in the arts, however, are especially prone to the whims of individuals’ opinions: People at the top of the literary food chain have absolute mindsets about what makes great work, and woe to the poor soul whose words fail to comply with those perceptions.

The happier side of this question coin, though, is certainly worth examination: If a reader LOVES your writing, he or she will tend to LOVE it completely. Fan followings are created upon this same psychology. There exists very little grey area between the emotional responses caused by a poem. Either the reader identifies with it and embraces it after a couple of read-throughs, or he or she casts it aside as unworthy. Sure, some folks will say, “Well, I like this piece, but it’s not the poet’s strongest,” but at the end of the day, they still follow your progress and like your Facebook page. One less-liked piece won’t totally alter overall perception (unless you really step in some deep kimchi).

The question poets are tasked with asking ourselves is this: Is subjectivity our friend or foe? The answer, I believe, is “Yes.” The artistic tastes, whims and preferences of other individuals result in publication, awards, fellowships, and the other markers of a writing life. Equally, those same sentiments result in harsh critical reviews, rejection letters, and workshop ugliness. Working in the humanities demands understanding and contending with humanity — its flaws, its beauty, and yes, its unpredictable subjectivity.

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